Sometimes Diplomacy Needs the F-Word

I threw down with Toria Nuland once, and lost

The Internet lit up yesterday with the release of an intercepted audio clip of Victoria Nuland, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discussing a strategy for putting an opposition government in place in Ukraine. In particular, Nuland's frustrated "F--k the EU" outburstprompted much tut-tutting, as did the U.S. diplomats' blunt talk of how best to get Ukrainian politicians to do what they want.

I threw down with Toria Nuland once, and lost. I was working at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in 1993. She was passing through as a bag carrier to Strobe Talbott, who was then a special representative dealing with the former Soviet Union. My job, as "deputy control officer," was to play traffic cop for a U.S. delegation and make sure that the meeting room held only top officials. Our Japanese hosts gave us two passes for access. Nuland browbeat me into giving her one, which I did on condition that she bring it back. That was the last I ever saw of Nuland or that the pass.

Oh, well! Nuland went on to diplomatic greatness, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations with toughness and distinction (and also becoming a lightning rod in the Benghazifallout). Those who find either the language or the tone of her conversation with Pyatt disturbing know nothing about diplomacy. For starters, the fecklessness of the EU when confronted with Russia's bad behavior, whether in Ukraine or elsewhere, is a matter of ugly record. Moreover, if one F-bomb is too much for you, be glad you were never on the receiving end of a tirade from Nuland's predecessor, Richard Holbrooke.

And as to those who are shocked, just shocked, by the U.S. attempt to manipulate Ukraine's opposition, this is exactly what diplomats at higher levels try to do: All the foreign ambassadors in Washington worth their pensions have salty, Machiavellian conversations with their superiors and colleagues about how to shape votes of the U.S. Congress. If you're an American, be glad that pros such as Nuland are on the job, and hope that your other diplomats aren't sitting around munching cucumber sandwiches in between demarches.

That said, here is one scandal that this intercepted call does point to, however: Were Nuland and Pyatt speaking, as they should have been, on the kind of encrypted phone designed for such discussions? If not, that's a major diplo-no-no. If they were, and some foreign power still managed to crack the code, then Uncle Sam needs to invest in some new phones ASAP.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @jamesgibney.)

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